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October surprise? Christie sets special election to fill Lautenberg seat

New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie called for a special election in October 2013 to choose the successor to the late Democratic Sen.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie detailing his 2014 state budget in Trenton, N.J. on Feb. 26, 2013. (Photo by Rich Schultz/AP)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie detailing his 2014 state budget in Trenton, N.J. on Feb. 26, 2013.

New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie called for a special election in October 2013 to choose the successor to the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, arguing it’s the fairest choice to quickly move to fill the open seat. But the decision has implications for his own re-election this fall, the next presidential campaign and the GOP in Washington.

Christie announced at a press conference on Tuesday that he had opted against appointing a successor to Lautenberg to serve until the 2014 election, and had set a general election on Wednesday, October 16.

“This is about guaranteeing the people of New Jersey both a choice and a voice in the process,” said Christie. “The right thing to do is to let the people decide, and let them decide as soon as possible.”

The primary will be held on Tuesday, August 13—a decision Christie stressed would take the choice away from party bosses.

“I will not permit the insiders and a few party elites to determine who the nominee of the Republican Party and the Democratic party will be,” said Christie.

Christie also said he would move quickly appoint an interim senator to serve between now and November, though he explained that he had not decided on that temporary appointee yet —and didn’t rule out making a choice who would in turn run for a full term.

Christie laughed when someone asked if he'd appoint a Republican or not, indicating that yes, he’d appoint a Republican to the seat.

“I do have a preference for one party over the other so that might color my decision a little.”

With this decision, Christie is potentially helping create the conditions for a big win in his re-election contest against Democrat Barbara Buono this November That, in turn, could make him a more formidable presidential candidate in 2016, should he choose to run.

The governor was openly defiant that was the reason for his decision, saying he followed the letter of the law to let the people pick, and political calculations played no role in his timetable.

But Christie’s decision to hold a special election in October could also be a gamble, leaving the governor open to criticisms of making a self-serving decision and causing a hefty financial cost to the state that could run as high as $24 million for the special election.

Christie said he wasn’t aware of what the cost would be—but in typical Christie fashion, said it didn’t matter.

“I don’t know what the cost would be, and quite frankly I don’t care,” said Christie. “The cost cannot be measured against the value of having an elected representative in the United States Senate when so many important issues are being debated this year. “

The choice of an October special is likely to placate no one on either side of the aisle, and even enrage conservatives—causing Christie headaches in a potential 2016 GOP primary. Senate Republicans were looking forward to having an extra vote in the Senate for an extended period, and also hoped they could make the Senate contest competitive.

Republicans made no secret they preferred a 2014 special election, which would have placed a Republican in a Democratic-held seat for more than a year, and allowed a strong GOP candidate, preferably one appointed by Christie, to build up a moderate voting record and time to build up a robust campaign.

With Christie on the ballot this November, Republicans at the state level especially hoped for downballot help in state legislative races. GOP strategists also feared that a special election would help Democratic turnout, especially among African Americans, if popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who was already running for Lautenberg’s seat, is the nominee.

Democrats, however, hoped for a November 2013 contest for exactly the opposite reason. Buono hasn’t been able to raise money and mount a serious challenge to the governor, but if a competitive special election drove up turnout among Democrats, they could at least cut the margin and minimize Christie’s influence on other races.

Tarnishing his fiscally conservative brand and saddling the state with two elections that could cost upwards of $24 million is possibly Christie's biggest risk. According to an advisory opinion from the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, obtained by NBC News, the cost for both a primary and a general election is approximately $11.9 million each, instead of holding them concurrent with the November 5, 2013, general election.

Democrats will be all too eager to make that point in his re-election contest, where Christie has campaigned on cutting spending as governor. An NBC News/Marist poll from last month showed the incumbent with a more than two-to-one lead over Buono, with 58% approving of his handling of the state’s budget.

Despite being close to Booker, Christie may have done inadvertent harm to the Democrat’s bid. Booker’s now all but certain to face a primary, likely from Rep. Frank Pallone and maybe even Rep. Rush Holt. And because of the timing of the election, neither would have to give up their safe House seats to run. Booker is still the favorite going into a Democratic primary, but he’ll have a competitive race that might have been avoided otherwise. A later race would have given Booker a bigger financial edge, and could make it harder for him to distance himself from his advance Senate announcement and the lashing the late Lautenberg gave him. Booker too could answer in a Democratic primary for his cozy relationship with Christie.

The October decision could save Christie legal wrangling and a court battle over the date, particularly if he had tried to wait until 2014.

While many Democrats accused Christie of needlessly inviting an extra cost upon New Jersey taxpayers – all while avoiding a special Senate election on the same day that voters decide on Christie’s own re-election – the governor’s decision won the praise of the Senate’s top Democrat.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters on Capitol Hill.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also seemed pleased by Christie’s decision, while gleefully pointing out the governor likely frustrated his own party with his timetable.

“Republicans have not won a Senate race in New Jersey in more than 40 years. Their only shot was an appointee who had a year and a half to establish themselves before an election in 2014,” said DSCC spokesman Matt Canter. “With this news I assume operatives at the NRSC are busy planning Christie’s defeat in Iowa and New Hampshire right now.”